As far as celebrity chefs of Manchester go, Gary Usher’s got to be up there.
The Hispi Bistro impresario made his name with the restaurants Sticky Walnut in Chester and Burnt Truffle on the Wirral – as well as the swanky Chorlton spot on School Lane here in Manchester.
More recently, he has secured a new eatery, Wreckfish in Liverpool, which is opening thanks to a £200k crowdfunding campaign – a tactic which brought Burnt Truffle and Hispi into being, too.
But he’s not a tie-wearing, softly-spoken trad chef your ma would like.
With his no-nonsense – somewhat sweary – social media persona and, in person, his sleeves of tattoos, he’s got the rock star aesthetic that his mate Michael O’Hare – of the Urbis building’s Rabbit In The Moon – shares: the chefs who rock it.
In spite of – or perhaps, because of – this larger-than-life persona, entering Hispi Bistro is actually a really pleasant, easy-going experience.
The small green frontage hides a rustic, down-to-earth interior, all whitewashed walls and bare wood.
The small size of the space means that a packed evening can see the collected customers’ chatter turn into a cacophony, but then who wouldn’t be thrilled to be there?
When I went to dine there, the staff were helpful and beyond, bringing zesty wines – white – and woody ones – red – as well as a constant supply of water, fresh napkins and cutlery after mine was accidentally dropped on the floor.
In anticipation of the grandeur which was promised, I had skipped brekkie, so fell upon an early lunch with enthusiasm.
But it wasn’t grand at all in there – it was reassuring and homely.
The food was anything like what I get at home, mind. The starter of cured cod loin, red carlin peas, kohlrabi, smoked bacon and horseradish broth (not currently on the menu) looked so artistically put together that it was a lesson in art as much as cooking.
The flavour of the broth stayed with me long after the last slurp – apologies, it felt like it was worth a slurp – but I regret it was instantly forgotten with the arrival of my Kimchi spiced middle white pork chop with gem lettuce, dill and pickled tomatoes (£17.50).
Sparsely presented – compared to the jolly starter with so many brightly-coloured ingredients vying for position – it was nevertheless to spoil my tastebuds for any other pork chops I ever eat.
The Kimchi flavour was discernible, but not too spicy – letting the meat sing with its blackened exterior and rich bone-in flavour.
The gem lettuce had a flavour which, I’m sorry, leaves just don’t have when they’re raw in a salad bowl.
And the pickled tomato was sharp and striking, cutting through the other flavours as their opposite with a lovely acidity.
The Hispi showstopper, I had been advised, was the custard tart (£5) – so who was I to resist?
It looked like an everyday slice of custard tart, but had a wobble to conjure with, barely contained as I compulsively jiggled the plate.
And then the real magic. From the second my spoon dented the surface, it was like a chemical reaction.
The oozy, rich custard was let loose from behind an invisible forcefield, the creaminess and the flavourall encompassing with every mouthful, until it was over far far far far too soon.
For anyone is aware of Gary Usher’s reputation, the food in Hispi – fine dining – and the atmosphere there – relaxed – may be a bit of a surprise.
But for some reason, like the seeming contradictions in his food, it all just sort of works.
Hispi Bisto is at Manchester International Festival until July 16 with their take on fast food – including truffle and parmesan chips or beef feather croquettes.